More than five months ago, members of the task force working on merging Macon and Bibb County governments talked about the need for feedback from the public.
A well-advertised public meeting would be held in each of the nine new commission districts, and 15,000 surveys would be mailed to city and county residents, asking what they wanted to know about the new government and what changes or services theyd like to see. A version of the survey was to be posted online.
But with only five months to go before the merger happens, none of the meetings has been held, and the surveys wont be sent out at all, said Chris Floore, the citys public affairs director and member of the task forces communications team.
Hesitation about scheduling the meetings stemmed from the realization that elections for the new countywide mayor and commission seats originally were set for July 16, he said.
We had conversations about it early on, about when to have (the public meetings), Floore said. We wanted it to be truly a listening session rather than a political debate.
He said he worried the meetings would become platforms for candidates rather than a chance to share facts about consolidation and gather public opinions.
The delay doesnt sit well with Macon City Councilman Tom Ellington, a member of the consolidation task force. He said the holdup is disappointing and that he at least was not consulted about the change.
I dont recall a full vote by the transition task force, Ellington said.
The meetings and other publicity efforts were to be paid for with a $62,142 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, announced Feb. 20. Floore told a task force committee in April the meetings would be scheduled and advertised soon, and they were to be held over a four- to six-week span.
Instead, Floore said Friday, they were put off until after the election. But then the election itself was rescheduled for Sept. 17, with any needed runoffs on Oct. 15.
Ellington, who is not seeking a seat in the new government, said that means the hoped-for input wont come until the task forces work is almost over, less than three months before the January 2014 merger.
At this point, you want to have a chance to publicize the meetings, he said. Theres going to be a runoff in the mayors race, almost certainly, so that pushes it back even further.
Floore said when the meetings finally are held, newly elected officials can appear with task force members. That will let the new officials get direct public input that can be used once they take office, he said. It will be more useful for them than for the task force, which has been making mostly internal decisions such as employee benefit plans, Floore said.
Beverly Blake, local program director for the Knight Foundation, said she didnt recall when she got word of the meeting schedule change, but that its up to the task force to set its own agenda.
When the grant was originally made, it was at the very beginning of the transition process, she said. We understood that as the fluidity of the process moved forward that there might be opportunities to make adjustments as we went along.
A written survey of desires and opinions of consolidation was posted on the city and county websites and is still available. But thats no way to gather a representative sample of public opinion, according to Ellington, an associate professor of political science at Wesleyan College who teaches about political research methods.
A self-selected sample is worse than meaningless, he said.
Floore said that after the first month or so of having the survey online, officials received very few responses, and much of what they did get was vague. But one impression they gathered was that people said they wanted information about consolidation through every possible avenue -- social media, news outlets, video from task force meetings and public statements from task force members, he said.
We were doing everything (the public was) asking us to do, Floore said.
So the communication team decided, instead of sending out 15,000 written surveys to residents, that they would use the Knight money to make a video about consolidation with the International City/County Management Association, he said. That will tell the story more effectively, Floore said. But to Ellington, an informational and promotional video doesnt square with the professed desire for public feedback.
Thats a fine thing to do, but it doesnt seem like it would fulfill the same purpose, Ellington said.
Much of the Knight Foundation money was used as planned to buy new video equipment and develop a consolidation website, which is still under construction by Third Wave Digital. But shifting some of the money from survey costs to making a video is fine, said Blake, who heard about the change a month ago.
We are fully supportive of what theyre doing and fully supportive of how they want to go about their communication strategy, she said. The intent of the grant was to help the transition task force communicate with our citizens and keep people apprised of the process and the activities, and they have done that.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.